Greece honours Maria Callas with arts academy in former Athens home

American-born soprano’s links to Greece celebrated as fans try to reclaim ‘La Divina’ as a national icon 37 years after her death

Her devotees may be legion but in Greece, the country she identified with most, Maria Callas never quite got the recognition she deserved. Now, 37 years after her death, that wrong may finally be righted.

Last month, the Greek national opera raised €10,000 (£7,900) by staging a concert at the foot of the Acropolis in memory of the soprano, with the proceeds going towards the creation of an academy of lyrical arts named in her honour and housed in the building in Athens where she once lived.

It was there as a teenager that the singer took her first voice lessons, visiting the National Archaeological Museum opposite to study classical statuary.

“This is long, long overdue,” said Myron Michailides, the artistic director of the Greek National Opera. “Ours is the stage where she first performed solo, where her career began, so why no state institution has ever honoured her is really a mystery.”

The initiative is the fruit of years of work by Vasso Papantoniou, also an acclaimed opera singer, who once wrote to Callas “in shame” that she should be compared by the media to her.

“Nothing like this academy exists in Greece and she will be vindicated through it,” Papantoniou said. “It is shocking and inexcusable that such a great artist, a musician so unsurpassed has never been properly recognised here.”

Papantoniou has spent the best part of two decades trying to get “La Divina” honoured in Greece. With her husband, the writer Vassilis Vassilikos, she has campaigned tirelessly for officials to pay tribute to the woman who revolutionised the art.

A school, providing university degrees to students of opera – from singers to conductors, directors and opera designers – would be the biggest step so far.

Callas’s relationship with Greece was as tumultuous as her ill-fated romance with the rag-to-riches Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The pair were the two most celebrated Greeks alive at the time and embarked on a stormy affair in the late 1950s, with Callas falling passionately in love with the tycoon while still married to Italian industrialist Giovanni Meneghini.

Although she avoided the country after Onassis left her and married Jacqueline Kennedy, the widow of the US president John F Kennedy, – she asked that her ashes be scattered in the Aegean. She died aged 53 in 1977 in Paris.

With opera’s renaissance in recent years and the world-renowned soprano suddenly a symbol of unity for crisis-hit Greeks, the race to reclaim her has gathered pace.

For a nation whose confidence has been shattered by near economic collapse, Callas is for many an emblem of what is possible.

“She is not only a source of huge local pride but a great role model and reminder of what can be accomplished,” said Michael Moussou, a former opera singer.

Unlike Italy, which has several streets named after her in recognition of her long sojourn at La Scala, Greece has failed to follow suit. But this year Moussou, who heads the Lycabettus Society for the preservation of patrimony, began campaigning for the road next to the building where the chanteuse spent her formative years to be named after her.

And to his surprise thousands have flocked to sign the petition. “London and Paris have also named streets after her, but instead of boasting that this was the city where Callas grew up, Athens has never done the same,” he lamented. “The support has been tremendous. Museums, arts societies, fashion designers, actors, Greeks from all over the diaspora are rallying to the cause. She is an international icon. They want it to happen.”

So, too, it seems do local authorities now eager to cash in on the Maria effect with tourism at record levels. This year the mayor of Athens, Giorgos Kaminis, declared that Callas should be commemorated with a building, within view of the Acropolis, in her honour. A four-storey museum is to open at the end of 2015. “It is the very least we can do,” said the opera-loving official who like the soprano was born to Greek parents in New York.

A harder task has been coming up with items to exhibit for a show at the former hotel in the capital. Fans visiting a municipal collection of Callas memorabilia, to date, have had to make do with a gown, wig and gloves and photographs of the singer with her favourite dog.

Organisers say visitors can expect an “interactive experiential” insight into the singer’s career and life. What will get less attention is Callas’s relationship with Onassis. Long overdue, the museum will focus solely on the woman who stunned the world.

• This article was amended on 30 October and 6 November 2014 to correct the spelling of Michael Moussou’s name, and Callas’s age at her death.

Contributor

Helena Smith in Athens

The GuardianTramp

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